A few months ago, I came across an article about notetaking on NPR.org. In research that was originally published in Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA studied how notetaking by hand or by typing on a computer might affect learning. A quote from the article:
“When people type their notes they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can. (On the other hand) the students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”
One hypothesis that Mueller and Oppenheimer developed is that when a person is taking notes by hand, “the processing that occurs” improved “learning and retention.”
The thought occurs that this might hold true as well when we contrast the benefits of drawing from direct observation with those gained by taking a photo of the same scene. The active seeing that drawing on location encourages can often lead to better understanding and more vivid visual memories.
On what turned out to be a beautiful Sunday morning after a few cloudy, showery days, the Seattle Urban Sketchers group met in the upper Queen Anne neighborhood just north of downtown. As I was viewing the subject of my first sketch, Nana’s Mexican Family Restaurant, I realized that the scene presented a multitude of details that would overwhelm the eye. I therefore chose to draw very selectively, leaving a lot of white space for the imagination to fill. This approach required the selection of a dominant element—in this case, the sign above the sidewalk—and then proceeding so that the drawing would lead the eye from one area of interest to the next. The key is never to lead the eye off the page.
I used a similar approach for the remaining two drawings I was able to do during the morning session.
This office building at 3500 First Avenue Northwest reminds me of the formal, geometric modernism of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates and other firms from the 1970s. I was told that Barney Vemo designed and built the structure in that same time period. After walking by this place many times, what I recall in my mind’s eye are these fragments that I drew, not the entirety of the whole as shown in the photograph taken from across the street.
Sometimes, visual memories of places consist of single, iconic images. Think of the Pantheon in Rome or the Eiffel Tower in Paris. At other times, what we remember consists more of a collage of partial views rather than an image of the whole.
Thanks to all the participants in the Line to Color workshop Gail Wong and I led this past weekend in the Fremont neighborhood and Gasworks Park in Seattle. We appreciated the energy and willingness of everyone to endure the less than ideal weather conditions to draw and paint this weekend. When sketching while traveling or simply out and about, we often cannot control how hot, cold, or wet it is. We can only do the best we can.
After drawing on location for so long, I sometimes forget what it is like to be a beginner. More than a few participants mentioned how mentally tiring it was to draw all day, which, in thinking about it, shouldn’t have surprised me. Drawing, and the seeing it requires, does take effort, especially for beginners struggling to resolve the difference between what we know about something and how it might appear to the eye.
During these workshops, Gail and I rarely have the time to do any drawings of our own except for the quick demos we may do in our sketchbooks as we work with each of the participants one on one. Yesterday, to wrap up the workshop, we gathered at Seattle Center for a final session and I finally had the time to do a couple of sketches. The first is the view looking out from under the canopy at the base of the Space Needle, and the second is a contour line drawing of Space Bloom, an installation that combines art, science, and technology to enable the floral sculptures to sing and dance throughout the year.
At the heart of Amazon’s urban campus being erected near the Denny Triangle, just north of downtown Seattle, are these three steel-and-glass spheres. The large dome structures, which range from 80 to 95 feet in height and from 80 feet to 130 feet in diameter, contain five floors of experimental spaces for Amazon employees to “work and socialize in a more natural, parklike setting.”
As is typical with projects that veer from the norm, opinions vary as do the descriptors being bandied about—glass orbs, fly eyes, and bubbleators. While some see the spheres as a welcome departure from the geometry of Seattle’s high-rises, others are not as impressed with the audacious display, being more concerned with the public amenities (or lack thereof) being created. Only time will tell.
Alva Noë recently wrote an article on NPR.org about a new show Architectures of Life at the Berkeley Art Museum, curated by Lawrence Rinder. To quote from the piece:
“We forget that it is hard to see. To paraphrase Kant (loosely), seeing without understanding is blind, even if understanding without seeing is empty. A good drawing—for example of the working parts of an engine—is often much easier to interpret than an actual perceptual encounter with the engine itself. The engine, after all, is very complicated. What is important? What deserves notice? It’s hard to know. But the drawing, when it is successful, is more than a mere representation; it is, really, the exhibition of what something is, of how it works, of what it is for. A good drawing is an image that has been imbued with thought.”
I like how Noë stresses that drawings are more than mere reproductions of what we see or envision. To read the full article, please visit: <http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2016/02/26/468216993/life-and-art-unite-in-architectures-of-life>.
During the last Seattle Urban Sketchers meet-up in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, this particular view drew my attention because of its strong gestalt of a dark house, reached via a series of paths zigzagging up an ivy-covered slope. There appears to be a force field that is repelling the apartment building to the north and a remodel to the south. How much longer will the force field hold up against the forces of development?
An entirely different type of view is this busy interior of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room, featuring the Probat P Series solid drum roaster.
The December meeting of the Seattle Urban Sketchers took place at the Seattle Central Library, where I drew these two views of the Norcliffe Foundation Living Room. Serving as a general purpose reading area adjacent to a coffee shop and gift shop, the Living Room is part of the largest of the dynamic spaces in the library designed by Rem Koolhaaus and Joshua Prince-Ramus of OMA in collaboration with LMN Architects.
In one sense, the irregular geometry of such spaces can be easier to draw since any deviation from what actually exists may be difficult to discern. On the other hand, what is important to convey is a sense of the scale and 3-dimensional volume of the space.
In a recent issue of The New Yorker, John McPhee wrote an article entitled Omission: Choosing what to leave out. In the essay McPhee references Ernest Hemingway’s Theory of Omission, which encourages writers to let the reader do the creating by leaving white spaces between chapters or segments of chapters, the unwritten thoughts to be articulated by the reader. McPhee advocates letting the reader have the experience and leaving judgment in the eye of the beholder.
This idea of omission can also be applied to drawing as well. Just as writing is a matter of selecting and stringing words together to create a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter, sketching is a matter of drawing a line, then another, and another, until one creates shapes and compositions that recall to the seeing eye the scene set before us. And what we omit from a drawing is just as important as what we include.